The truth about e-numbers and why you should care

Regardless of what many believe - myself included until recently - E on a food label doesn’t necessarily stand for “Evil”. E-numbers, which represent food additives on packaged foods, can be both good and bad.

Let me explain…

Food additives as such have been used for ages. The ancient Romans, for instance, used saffron, salt, and vinegar to either colour their food, or preserve it.

In the 60’s European and US governments introduced a list with approved food additives, whether from natural sources or chemically derived, in order to regulate additives and ban certain harmful substances from being used in our food. In Europe, these are coded with e-numbers, in the US and elsewhere either a number or the full name are being used on labels.

On this list, you can find some totally natural, harmless additives such as saffron (E164), paprika (E160), vitamin C (E300), or sodium bicarbonate (E500).

Others are produced using chemical processes, of which some are worthy of caution despite being approved by the authorities after testing.

Which e-numbers should you avoid?

1. The Southampton Six

These artificial colours mainly used in colourful sweets, cakes and drinks, were found by a 2007 British study to be associated with hyperactivity in children. They’re still allowed in Europe, but labels must mention ‘may have an adverse effect on activity and attention in children’.

The colours in question are:

  • E102: tartrazine
  • E104: quinoline yellow
  • E110: sunset yellow FCF
  • E122: carmoisine
  • E124: ponceau 4R (banned in the US for many years because considered dangerous)
  • E129: allura red

2. E-numbers to which you or your children may be allergic

Allergies to food additives are common, with typical reactions being headaches, skin problems, nausea, palpitations, trembling, or digestive disorders. Restrict processed foods and try to cook homemade meals as much as possible to limit your family’s exposure to possible triggers.

3. MSG or monosodium glutamate (E621)

MSG is a flavour enhancer widely used in Chinese restaurants, but also added to thousands of processed foods such as canned soups, meats, ready-made meals, dressings etc. Although considered safe in low doses, many food and health experts have issued serious warnings regarding this flavour enhancer. Moreover, an estimated 40 percent of the population is thought to be intolerant. My advice: stay away from it and use healthy natural ingredients to spice up your food.

4. Artificial sweeteners (E700-E999)

These chemical sweeteners such as saccharin (E954), aspartame (E951), and sucralose (E955), are widely used in “diet” products and have been associated with dangerous side effects in several scientific studies. To be avoided at all costs if you ask me.

In conclusion

My advice is simple: eat as many home cooked meals as possible and choose trusted restaurants when eating out. Not only will you minimize your intake of chemicals, you’ll also ingest far less sugar, trans fats, and salt, which are also abundant in most processed foods.